Stairway to Gilligan: The bizarre pairing of Led Zeppelin and ‘Little Buddy’ is the grandfather of the mash-up


Peter Wallner of Santa Cruz inherited a box of formerly contraband 45-rpm singles that raised a dust-up over copyright law in the 1970s. Photo by Dan Coyro.

The following is a story written by a former journalist friend which sets to trace what many feel is the first mash-up.

By DAN FITCH

Peter Wallner of Santa Cruz had no idea he was being handed live ammunition from a pop-culture revolution. He thought he was helping his father clean the garage.

Cleaning this garage was interesting work. His father John was a disc jockey in the 1970s and ‘80s. His uncle Mark was a recording engineer. In the garage were rare discs, such as white-vinyl Beatles on Apple Records.

Then Peter’s father handed him a box of 7-inch, 45-rpm singles containing a three-minute, 17-second song so dangerous the recording industry tried to kill it.

“He told me the story,” said Peter, 23, a Harbor High graduate. “And I thought ’so these aren’t supposed to exist.’”

The song contains a flawless synthesis of Led Zeppelin and “Gilligan’s Island.” In the 1970s Little Roger & the Goosebumps played a throwaway song matching the lyrics of the television sitcom with the music of “Stairway to Heaven.” Hear it here.

The band had packed East Bay clubs for years, sometimes playing three or four sets a night of original material. But when it began mingling Gilligan with Led Zeppelin, something spiritual awakened in concert-goers. They found it difficult to dance while laughing so hard.

It appeared an unlikely marriage. “Gilligan’s Island” was a comedy aired from 1964-67 on CBS. It became a staple of syndication. The show involves a small seagoing vessel named “SS Minnow” that shipwrecks on a remote island. Gilligan is a gangly adult innocent referred to as ‘little buddy” by a man known only as The Skipper. There is a handsome professor who devises nifty items to aid survival. There is the immortal Jim Backus portraying the stranded millionaire Thurston Howell III. Millions of American boys wrestled with the existential “Gilligan” question: Ginger or Mary Ann?

“Stairway” is a song about a lady who is “buying a stairway to heaven.” There are also passages about a piper and a May queen. It is not humorous.

“Gilligan’s Island” reportedly is being made into a movie. “Led Zeppelin IV,” the record containing “Stairway,” has sold at least 23 million copies, placing it at No. 4 on the all-time best-selling album list.

In 1978 Little Roger & The Goosebumps pressed 5,400 “Gilligan’s Island (Stairway)“ vinyl 45s on their own Splash Records label, and mailed them to FM radio stations. The song induced delirium in many listeners.

“A radio station in Philadelphia played it every hour for 24 hours,” said Dick Bright, a Goosebump. “At the time I think a lot of people asked ‘How did this happen?’”

At the time there was no YouTube, Facebook, sampling, raving, or mash-ups. No texting or Photoshopping. In the clever tradition of American novelty songs, there had been nothing like it. The song quickly became an underground hit on late-night radio. It was a staple of the popular oddities show by Dr. Demento.

But it made the Led Zeppelin and Gilligan people very angry. Lawyers for Atlantic Records – the home of Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, and Ray Charles, among others – issued a cease-and-desist order. “Gilligan’s” producers were enraged. The band was ordered to stop performing the song live. Radio stations were banned from playing it. All copies of the record were ordered destroyed.

The song and record vanished in six weeks. In time, so did the band.

“It was the record that ate the band,” said head Goosebump Roger Clark in a phone interview from his home in Mazatlan.

But like most things pop, it re-animated like a zombie. There was talk it existed. The talk led to academic debate on the limits of sampling and copyright. Weird Al Jankovic told Clark the Goosebumps were heroes and the song was an inspiration for a lucrative career featuring such hits as “Another One Rides the Bus.”

It became a question on a Trivial Pursuit card.

And in a 2005 interview on NPR, Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant said the Splash Records single was his “favorite Led Zep cover version.”

Versions of the Goosebumps song can be seen on YouTube. A young fan recently spliced the beginning of a “Gilligan’s Island” episode to run with the song. Currently two copies of the record are up for bid on E-Bay, both starting at around $15. Clark said he has been told that copies have been sold for as high as $100. Not bad for a one-off single distributed more than three decades ago and crushed by two massive entertainment corporations.

Peter Wallner finds it cool, and somehow fitting, that the remaining bulk of the story wound up in a box in a Santa Cruz garage. Spiritually, the area seems to have a knack for this sort of raw material.

Wallner thinks everyone should have lightened up in the first place.

“I didn’t understand why they got so upset,” he said. “It’s not like people are not gonna like their music, they might like it even more. Obviously they all had big egos, it wasn’t even personal.”

Times have changed. The creation of Napster and its destruction by a desperate recording industry, the birth of music stars on the Internet, and the mainstreaming of iTunes and its ilk have the large companies feeling the fear of obsolescence.

But Wallner also embodies what has become the resistant nature of rock ‘n’ roll. He and his girfriend, Raya Heffernan, have their own band, Grizzeltoe, a duo. The two have known each other since they were 15. Wallner works the counter of the juice bar at New Leaf Market on the Westside, and practices and records music at home.

Wallner says Grizzeltoe play ‘90s indie-pop covers ranging from Kate Bush and the Ramones, on up to originals. Like other young musicians and bands in the county, Grizzeltoe scraps for gigs and audiences anywhere it can get them. Wallner said the band has played house concerts, at Meta Vinyl record store, and at The Crepe Place, where the band will perform later this month.

The source of Wallner’s death-sentenced box set is the product of music industry genes. He says his uncle is the most likely source of the garage find. Mark Wallner, who died three years ago, was a recording engineer and friend of the band. He is credited on recordings by Michael Bloomfield, Chrome, and The Rubinoos. His most noteworthy credit is on “Plastic Surgery Disasters” by the Dead Kennedys. Mark and John Wallner were both friends with Goosebump band members.

Peter Wallner says he’ll hang on to the records. He occasionally sells a copy and said he has gotten as much as $50.

“To the right people, it’s valuable,” he said.

To Bright and Clark, it’s a piece of their history that resurfaces every five years are so in some odd fashion. Fortunately, both men moved on to successful careers and can now afford to be amused by the episode.

“It still survives!” said Bright, who played electric violin for the Goosebumps . “He’s got 69 more copies of it than me. The big picture is that I am still a big fan of combining comedy and music.”

Bright, 57, has combined both into a career in show business. For 11 years he directed a 30-piece orchestra that backed acts such as Santana and Bonnie Raitt at the Bammie Awards. Starting in 1984 he directed a 10-piece band in the Venetian Room Supper Club at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco. The gig last eight years and the band backed everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to James Brown. The band also made serious cash playing constant gigs for corporations.

Bright also had parts in television commercials and a role in the movie “Mrs. Doubtfire.” He played his a part in another novelty hit in 1981, when the Goosebumps backed Bruce “Baby Man” Baum on the immortal “Marty Feldman Eyes.“ He currently lives in Marin and remains in the music business as a consultant, musician, and club manager in San Francisco.

Clark – “pulling his 50s” – lives in Mazatlan with his wife and twin 11-year-old boys. He said he has “strong mixed feelings” about the “Gilligan” episode.

“It keeps showing up,” he said. “I’m not that inclined to look back, but the song has been the source of great copyright debate. Culturally it’s a funny thing, I’ve had people tell me it was the first mash-up.

“I am proud to be associated with that kind of cultural discussion.”

But he also says it was a drag that a great band was backed into a corner by a novelty song. Record-industry types loved the band’s live shows and music, but were afraid to make a move.

“They’d say ‘we love it. We love it. We love it’ – but we don’t what to do with it.”

Clark moved on to a career in the industry. He booked entertainment for the Claremont Hotel, worked at a major label, and has written songs for other artists. Most recently he wrote the music for a Japanese saki commercial.

Mostly, Clark runs his own business in the resort town in Mexico. One year while on vacation in Mazatlan, he noticed that a lot of old architecture was being replaced by new materials. He discovered that an influx of North Americanos moving to the area wanted their new homes to contain a more historical feel. So he started Hace Mucho to engineer the design, restoration, and construction of higher-end homes using salvaged architectural materials. In the current economy, business is slow, but he has done well.
He wishes Peter Wallner the best of luck with his found box set.

“It wasn’t Elvis’ Sun singles,” he said, “but if somebody’s making money off it, that’s good.”

Wallner said he understands that a fluke can simultaneously spotlight a band, and ultimately doom it. And like millions worldwide, he survived “Stairway to Heaven.”

“I went through a Led Zeppelin phase,” he said. “The only one I can come back to is ‘Houses of the Holy,’ because it just rocks.”

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